Recent rules issued by the U. S. Department of Labor have mandated overtime pay for employees who work more than 40 hours a week if they earn $47,476 per year or less. That adds a lot of people to overtime and will put a much-deserved dent into the business models of innumerable shady corporations. It’s one of those rule adjustments that outgoing administrations do: it’s something Obama wants credit for but wasn’t willing to spend any political capital on.
The New York Times pointed out that this plan threatens to disrupt the “Prada Economy,” referring to the novel and film “The Devil Wears Prada,” a fictionalized account of working for Vogue editor Anna Wintour. That many publications or institutions of measurable influence are horrible places to work is no surprise at this point. I know people with Masters degrees who are brilliant at what they do yet live in poverty because access to paying work in their field is through unpaid or nearly-unpaid work.
A friend I worked with years ago once had a job interview with the prestigious Paris Review. George Plimpton asked her at once point, “How important is it to you to get paid?” She was newly arrived to New York City and getting paid was very important with any job she took and she told Plimpton that. She did not get the job.
When I was trying to get a writing job I managed to get an interview with a trade publication (Chemical Week – it is still around) and after a few rounds of interviews and a writing test they wanted me to come in and work for a while. “Don’t do it unless you can stay at least four hours,” the editor told me. I came in and worked a full day, writing some stories, re-writing news briefs and the like. I never heard back from them. A year or two later I discovered that they had published some of my work and never paid me for it. When I contacted the editor all he did was send me a photo copy of the pages of the magazine in which my work appeared. As rotten as that is, it’s kids’ stuff. I know freelancers who struggle to get paid by name-brand companies and mainstream publications.
There are instances where low-paid or even unpaid internships are acceptable and permissible. When I was in college and able to live with parents, I had an internship on a gubernatorial campaign. I worked some incredibly long hours driving our candidate around the state of Georgia in the summer heat for a month, at one point not sleeping for more than two or three hours. It was an incredibly fun time and I was paid only $100 per week. But that was when I could afford to do that and it was only a temporary assignment. Colleges and parents can often subsidize interns. Once people graduate college, they usually have to start paying the rent and start trying to pay down their student loans.
Using an internship as an unpaid apprenticeship for large, for-profit institutions is unacceptable. You shouldn’t’ have to be a sucker to pursue your dreams. And in the end it’s the publications that suffer. If the only people able to work in the arts or media are wealthy scions or sociopaths who still live in their parents’ basement past the age of 30, then you’re not going to get the best minds of your generation.
I wouldn’t be surprised to find that a lot of companies give raises to overworked employees to $47,477 per year just to skirt these rules. But maybe that may be a kind of back-handed victory in and of itself if enough people get raises. They’ll still be overworked and underpaid, but underpaid by a little less. In these times, we’ll take what we can get.
Labor Day is a day when most American workers have a day off and spend it being thankful that we have a job, if we have one. Any power the day once held to fire up a meaningful organized labor movement in the U.S. has long been stripped away. For the vast majority of us, work is something we do because we have to do something that makes money.
I’d love to be able to say that I’m an independently wealthy writer who can generate income through the genius of every creative whim, but the truth is I work in an office doing work that doesn’t really interest me. I like being good at my job because I refuse to be a lazy slug and need to make a living. But I’m working for The Man like everyone else.
I find it to be a benefit to have worked many different jobs over the last two decades. I have been a grocery bagger, house painter, video store assistant manager, immigration inspector, security guard, line cook, telemarketer, retail sales clerk and financial journalist.
By far the job I hated the most was as the assistant manager of a video store. This was in suburban Atlanta in the late 1990s when I was living a miserable, impoverished life among the relative wealth and ease of the Atlanta suburbs. Even though I love watching films and getting to rent movies for free was a chief perk of the job, having to answer to the entitled whims of overfed suburbanites grated on my nerves unmercifully. There were a few very nice customers there, but I hated that job so much that when I saw a bug skitter across the floor one night, I couldn’t bring myself to kill it. If a bug can find happiness in this miserable place, then good for him.
Having worked a large variety of jobs has given me a lot of different perspectives I otherwise would not have had. I like to think it shows in my daily interactions with people. I was that awkward teenager pushing his Dad’s lawnmower. I was the pimply kid behind the counter at McDonald’s on Labor Day. I was the unlucky immigration inspector stamping passports on Christmas and getting stuck working overtime.
Sometimes, even among very intelligent and good-natured friends, it becomes startlingly clear those who haven’t worked many of these jobs. The way someone treats a waitress or a bartender will tell you more about their life and attitude than any online profile or paper trail.
There’s a missing value that hasn’t been instilled in much of the population: that there is dignity in work, all work. Just because you don’t like your job or don’t like the people you work with or have to serve doesn’t mean you should feel comfortable behaving without dignity or purpose. All working people have dignity and deserve respect. Working for a living is beneath no one. And when you think about it, we are all a lot closer to the unemployment line than we like to think we are.
It’s a wisdom I’ve come to more recently and wish that I had had when I was bagging groceries and fielding the nonsensical complaints from entitled suburbanites. I felt the anger and resentment that comes with being treated like a servant. I let the opinion of others get to me, and it reflected a low opinion I had of myself. But dignity is not anything that anyone can grant you. If you’re in the right state of mind, you’ll have as much dignity shining shoes as you will being a movie star.
This Labor Day, resolve to take dignity in whatever job you do, and remember that no matter what the job is, everyone working for a living deserves your respect.
Happy Labor Day.